The Indian film industry, known as Bollywood, has influenced American cinema over the past few years, yet most people know relatively little about it. Films such as Bride and Prejudice and Mike Myers' dreadful The Love Guru have looked to Bollywood for inspiration. Then there's the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, which intentionally adopts a Bollywood tone, right down to the jubilant musical number over the end credits. Here's a crash course on the formula: off-the-wall comedy + melodrama + romance + multiple elaborate song-and-dance sequences = your typical Bollywood film. Interestingly, the only genuine American equivalent I can come up with is the work of Tyler Perry, which mixes many of the same unlikely elements, albeit with an end result that is quite different tonally.
Another thing you might not know is that Bollywood movies actually do pretty well here in the States. They play in very few theaters, yet often pull in strong per-screen numbers. I've been interested in the genre for a while now and have been intending to see more of what India has to offer. If you're intrigued as well, let me recommend Chandni Chowk to China, available on DVD May 5. This is the first Bollywood picture to have major studio backing - Warner Bros. released it in this country - so it offers an accessible entry point for newbies.
Akshay Kumar (one of the biggest stars in India) plays Sidhu, a professional food slicer in the Chandni Chowk neighborhood of Delhi. To say Sidhu is a buffoon would be slightly under-stating things. He looks like Borat and acts like Buster Keaton. One afternoon, he gets it in his head that an image of the god Ganesh has appeared in a potato. Around the same time, and in part because of the potato, a group of Chinese elders proclaim him to be the reincarnation of a historical hero. They persuade Sidhu to come to China to help a small town fight off a local smuggler, Hojo (Kill Bill's Gordon Liu).
Sidhu accepts, and his journey brings him into contact with twin sisters - one a TV commercial star with whom he's in love, the other an assassin - an amnesiac cop, a hulking muscleman and, of course, Hojo, who has a razor-edged bowler hat capable of slicing a man's head off when thrown. (The film's violence is the equivalent of a PG-13, despite how that sounds.)
How do I explain the experience of watching Chandni Chowk to China? That is a difficult task because, like a lot of Bollywood productions, it's a little bit of everything. Also, this particular picture is heavily influenced by Asian martial arts cinema, which makes it a slightly unique hybrid. Well, here goes: throw the cartoonish action of Kung Fu Hustle, the hero-on-a-quest story of The Golden Child, the manic physical comedy of a Jim Carrey flick, and the "Jai Ho" number from Slumdog Millionaire into a blender and this is more or less what you come up with. If that sounds odd, consider it one of the pleasures of Bollywood; part of the fun is not really knowing what's going to come next.
Something that may be a slight turn-off to American audiences is the running time. Bollywood movies are notoriously long. Chandni Chowk to China runs 2.5 hours - and it's one of the shorter ones! Obviously, the story is pretty thin to sustain such length. While there are all kinds of plot twists and detours and side roads taken, the journey of Sidhu is not particularly different from the "you're the chosen one" journeys taken by dozens of other big screen characters. You'll get the point long before he does.
That said, part of the reason for the length is that it frequently stops for an elaborately-choreographed fight sequence or song, and these are, without a doubt, sensational. My favorite takes place on the Great Wall of China, where filming really took place. The amnesiac cop takes on multiple armed assailants, while trying to protect an infant strapped to his front via one of those Baby Bjorn harnesses. I've seen dozens of Asian martial arts epics, but seeing them done with an Indian twist is interesting. The fights incorporate some of the distinct Bollywood dance moves to create something familiar yet new at the same time. The song and dance numbers are even better. As with most pictures in the genre, they are so joyous and energetic that it's almost impossible not to smile. If you're ever feeling blue, few things will cheer you up the way a Bollywood musical sequence will.
I really enjoyed Chandni Chowk to China. I laughed at the silly humor, dug the fight sequences, and grooved to the music and dancing. The pace drags a bit by the very end, as things wrap up in a predictable manner. But you know what? I didn't care. This is a fun movie, as well as an interesting peek into what entertains audiences in a different culture. The final scene not-so-subtly hints at a sequel, and I'd gladly follow the continuing adventures of Sidhu. For the curious, this is a very good Bollywood film to check out on DVD.
( out of four)
Chandni Chowk to China is presented in its original widescreen theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The picture quality on the DVD is excellent, and the digital sound is even better. If you have a surround sound system, this is a great movie to watch with the volume turned way up. The music really fills the room in a pleasing way.
The only bonus feature is the addition of deleted scenes, mostly just odds and ends. The best of them is the last one, a brief fight between Sidhu and Hojo in a restaurant kitchen.
Chandni Chowk to China is unrated but contains adult language and some violence. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes.
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